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Beach Bums No More, Volleyball Pros Turn Sand to Gold

Jay Hanseth got dinner and a trophy for winning the prestigious Laguna Beach Open volleyball tournament in 1973.

“That was pretty good for then,” says Jim Menges, who dominated the beach game from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s. Menges’ payday for winning the Hermosa Beach Open with partner Matt Gage in 1980 was frozen yogurt and a pitcher of beer.

How things have changed.

Today’s “King of the Beach,” Sinjin Smith, is well on his way to becoming the first millionaire in beach volleyball--a sport in which prize money for top players has increased more than 400% since 1985. Six players won over $100,000 on the tour last season.

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That’s a lot of frozen yogurt.

Smith and partner Randy Stoklos won $134,185 apiece last summer to top the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals money standings. But Smith’s growing wealth has as much to do with diversity as it does athletic prowess. The winningest player in beach volleyball history has a lucrative deal with a clothing manufacturer, a coming book and instructional video, and an anticipated part in a feature film.

Coming soon is a video game featuring the likenesses of Smith and Stoklos called, naturally, “Kings of the Beach.”

So how is this portfolio received by the local media when the AVP tour rolls into Chicago, Cleveland and Rochester, N.Y.--cities where the stars of a quirky California sport might be expected to have amassed some fame, but certainly not a fortune?

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Smith laughs. “They just can’t believe guys who grew up on the beach, play in the sand, get tan and run around with no shirts on can get paid $150,000 or $200,000 to do it.”

But some do. And things aren’t bad on the lower rungs of the money ladder, either. After 16 years of playing for trophies and (sometimes) dinner, the game has finally begun to pay off for Hanseth, at 36 the elder statesman of professional beach volleyball.

Hanseth won $35,002 on the tour last season, good for 12th place in the money standings. To earn what many deem a good living, he managed just one third-place finish and twice came in fourth, but more often took fifth, seventh, ninth, even 13th. And the Santa Barbara resident was aware of the talk among some of the sport’s young lions that the time had come for him to step aside.

“I’m not going to quit. They’re going to have to boot me out of the way,” Hanseth said. “The way I look at it, I still enjoy what I’m doing, I’m still competitive. So why not make $35,000 or $40,000 for playing volleyball on weekends when I’d be at the beach or on a tennis court anyway?”

For Menges, who is just two years older than Hanseth but quit the beach game in 1982, the timing of volleyball’s new professionalism was not so fortuitous. Menges was there when the money arrived, winning beach volleyball’s first two World Championship events--in 1976 with Greg Lee and in 1977 with Chris Marlowe--for a total of $2,500 in prize money. In one five-year stretch, he failed to finish third or better in just one tournament, and that was a fourth.

“I would never have had to work again,” said Menges, who recently entered the real estate field in Orange County after years of going from one job to the next. “But that’s just how things progressed. Now, you get seventh place every weekend and make $35,000.”

Menges could have added to that sponsorship and endorsement packages from beachwear manufacturers that cover a player’s travel expenses and may pay him a base salary--contracts that can double or even triple a top player’s income from winnings.

“All I ever got was free trunks,” Menges said.

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In contrast, Smith got part ownership of a beachwear company.

It’s more than a little symbolic that the guru of beach volleyball can no longer be found on the sand courts south of Manhattan Beach pier or north of Santa Monica, but instead occupies a law office on the 12th floor of a Century City high rise. Leonard Armato, attorney for the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Phoenix Suns guard Kevin Johnson, is credited with taking the game uptown.

And, he says, there’s no reason to stop at the city limits.

“Beach volleyball can go as far as just about any sport out there,” says Armato, the organizer and executive director of the AVP, whose latest coup was obtaining nationwide cable television coverage of all 29 tournaments on this year’s schedule.

“When you keep in mind that volleyball is the second most popular sport in the world, you know the beach game will continue to grow by leaps and bounds. It’s a good spectator sport and, with the exposure it’s getting this year on television, I think you’re going to see it explode.”

Armato’s enthusiasm for the sport appears to go beyond the standard hype of an agent or promoter. A former top-rated volleyball player himself, the 36-year-old sports lawyer graduated from Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach and played on the sand courts at the foot of Marine Avenue (known to the locals as “Marine Street”). The same information can be found in the AVP bios of veteran beach stars Mike Dodd and Jon Stevenson, among others.

So it’s not surprising that the players came to Armato in 1983 when they became dissatisfied with their original promoter, Event Concepts.

Money, at the time, was still new to beach volleyball. According to former player Jon Lee, now a volleyball writer and historian, prize money was introduced to the game in a manner reminiscent of pro wrestling or turn-of-the-century boxing. In the early 1970s, Jim Bartlett, a young publisher and entrepreneur with a taste for beach volleyball, decided to make things more interesting by placing a “bounty” on the top teams, Lee said.

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“Each team would enter the tournament with bounties on their heads and, if you beat them, you would win the bounty,” said Lee, who coaches volleyball at a Santa Barbara high school. “If the team won, they would retain their bounty.”

But it was Event Concepts that recognized the promotional power of beach volleyball and introduced a more sophisticated method of compensating the players. In 1976, the firm persuaded a corporate sponsor to put up a $5,000 purse for the first World Championship tournament and “professional” beach volleyball was born.

For eight years Event Concepts promoted the beach tour, expanding corporate sponsorship, modestly increasing the prize money and attracting the first cable television coverage. But all was not well. The players, Dodd said at the time, were “tired of being treated like nets and poles.” They wanted more control and more money.

Enter Armato. Under the direction of the attorney, the players formed the AVP and, thus, became a single bargaining unit, one unified voice. And when Event Concepts failed to meet the AVP’s demands in the summer of 1984, the players went on strike.

The aftermath of the AVP’s boycott of the 1984 World Championship tournament in Hermosa Beach brought total victory to the players. Event Concepts was out, the corporate sponsors were persuaded to stay and the players had control of beach volleyball.

“Essentially, (Event Concepts) was doomed from the start,” Hanseth said. “They saw the potential first; they saw thousands of people (attending tournaments) and no money being made, and they brought in the sponsors. But eventually we asked, ‘What are they really offering us? Why not start a players’ union, hire our own promoter and give him a salary?’ ”

According to Armato, the AVP did just that for the next three years, hiring another promoter, Group Dynamics Inc., and expanding the tour to 25 events and $600,000 in prize money. But after the 1987 season, the players decided to cut out the middle man altogether and promote the tour themselves, dealing directly with the sponsors.

“The AVP felt it could maximize the visibility of the sponsor and maximize the benefit to the players without having the money diluted by a third party,” Armato said. “And the prize money went from several hundred thousand dollars to over a million overnight.”

These results--coupled with the AVP’s corporate expansion into areas such as merchandising, publishing and concessions--have increased the players’ loyalty to Armato and their faith in his leadership, according to Stevenson.

“He’s made all the right moves,” Stevenson said. “He’s made good decisions, just about all of them have paid off and we’re looking forward to what the future may hold.”

So is Armato, who predicts that television will allow volleyball to overcome the limitations a beach sport might anticipate in a world that is largely landlocked.

“Hockey is not as transmittable to television as volleyball is,” said Armato, who has already introduced the beach game to the shores of Lake Michigan and, by bringing truckloads of sand to city parks, to places where there is no beach of any kind. “And if television can do what it did for golf--the most boring sport in the history of the world--imagine what it can do for us.

“Volleyball has all the elements: fast action, guys diving, guys with no shirts, the sun, the beach, girls in bikinis. It’s perfect for television.”

Jon Stevenson calls them the “thirtysomething guys.” Smith, Dodd, Tim Hovland, Pat Powers, Steve Obradovich, Hanseth and Stevenson himself. They are all 30 or older and dominate what is still perceived by many as a young man’s game--meant to be played by teen-agers during those long summer days before they must confront the realities of life.

The “thirtysomething guys” still play, Stevenson says, because they still win. “It was just a generation of really good volleyball players,” he said.

But he allows that their continued presence also has a lot to do with perspective. The older players remember when a “career” in beach volleyball meant sacrificing other real career opportunities. Some of life’s realities might not have been so bad, and casting them aside for a game that offered no real future seemed unwise.

“People can’t believe we’re making this kind of money,” said Stevenson, 31, another $100,000 winner last season. “But for five years, I wasn’t making more than $10,000 or $20,000. Since college (at UC Santa Barbara), I always considered going into the mainstream. I even did my first year of a master’s program in business. But I stuck with volleyball and it finally paid off.”

“You just had to make a decision in life,” said Dodd, Stevenson’s teammate at Mira Costa High who also survived the lean years to become a $100,000 player. “If you were a young guy, you would scratch out a living at a job that allowed you to go to the beach in the daytime. A lot of people worked in restaurants or did real estate.”

Those who remain from those days are the lucky ones, Stevenson says. “We’re the first guys who really made money at it. We’re the ones who put our asses on the line and went on strike, who gave up all those career opportunities to play volleyball. We don’t want to give it up yet. We want to go as long as we can.”

But has the game changed along with the prize money?

“I think just about everything has changed,” Stevenson said. “The only thing that hasn’t is that you still hit the ball three times.”

Though he agrees with Smith, who stresses that “once you step onto the court, it’s the same game now as it was then,” Stevenson is as wistful for volleyball’s past as he is enthusiastic about its prosperous present.

“The spirit is just not there any more,” he said. “It used to be more tied up with the subculture of the beach. It used to be tied in with going to the beach, surfing and having fun. Now, people are playing for different reasons. I don’t think many guys out there are not playing for the money.

“You can tell things have changed just by the conversation amongst the players. It used to be, ‘Where’s the party?’ and ‘Who did you sleep with last night?’ Now, it’s about permits for retaining walls, remodeling houses, stocks going up or down. It’s an entirely different set of topics.”

The results of the increased money, however, go well beyond court-side conversation. “The big difference,” Smith says, “is that it’s much more competitive out there. It used to be, 10 years ago or so, you could skate through Saturday’s games (before the final rounds Sunday). Now, you can’t take anyone lightly.”

Stevenson agrees. “The depth of competition has really increased,” he said. “There are about 20 top-quality teams right now. All the way down to the 40th-ranked teams, you find players who are real serious about making it a career. They’re doing the little things--diet, jump-training, lifting weights--to try to improve their game.”

And if they make it, the “little things” will include negotiating with sponsors over contract clauses, modeling beachwear for photo shoots and catching long commercial airline flights. AVP events, sponsored by beer and tequila companies, are now held in the target marketing regions for those products rather than traditional volleyball beaches like Laguna, State (north of Santa Monica) and Santa Barbara.

“I saw the whole transition,” Stevenson says. “Guys like Jim Menges and Matt Gage were every bit as good as the top players today, and it’s amazing they could sacrifice as much as they did and get nothing back except personal prestige.”

Pacific Coast Highway is volleyball’s answer to the Hollywood “Walk of Fame,” passing all the game’s legendary outposts as it meanders along the coastline from Orange County to Santa Barbara. And in the 1960s and 1970s, the stars shone brightest on a short stretch of beach north of Santa Monica.

At the foot of Chautauqua Boulevard, State Beach sits in the morning shadow of Pacific Palisades. This was once home to Ron Von Hagen.

The legendary Von Hagen, now a 50-year-old businessman in Idaho, won 62 tournaments between 1965 and 1975, despite never playing more than 10 tournaments in a summer. He’s still No. 3 on the all-time win list in an era of 30-event seasons.

A half-mile to the south, between State Beach and Santa Monica, is Sorrento Beach, where Jim Menges once ruled. For Menges, his long-time partner Greg Lee and the dozen or more other players who gathered daily at Sorrento, volleyball certainly was not a livelihood. But it was their life.

“We just played beach volleyball,” Menges said, in terms befitting the simplicity of the time. “That’s what we liked to do.”

Menges had much success at just playing volleyball. His 43 tournament victories place him sixth on the all-time list behind Smith, Stoklos, Von Hagen, Dodd and Hovland. (Hovland passed him this season.) And he has that fond memory of reuniting with Lee in 1982, near the end of both of their careers, to win a tournament in San Diego. Among their victims on that weekend were guys named Smith, Stoklos, Dodd and Hovland.

But it was those days on Sorrento Beach that were the sweetest. “There were 15 or 20 of us and we’d go to Sorrento and play,” he recalls. “I went to UCLA on a volleyball scholarship and scheduled my classes for the morning. (After leaving UCLA) I worked in a restaurant at night. And during those years I was playing volleyball six days a week.

“We’d play all afternoon and then we’d watch the sunset. It was a social thing.”

For Jon Lee, who played more than 10 years but never as successfully as brother Greg, money would have been nice, but the “esprit de corps” of the old volleyball circuit may have been worth more.

“There was less material benefit,” he said. “It was all pride and position in the subculture that motivated you. It was just the respect of your peers and love of the sport that you were playing for.

“You’d work in restaurants at night, play volleyball in the day and then, on the weekends, the party would travel to San Diego, Corona (del Mar), Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara. It was a nice life. I cherish the memories and the image that volleyball had then.”


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